Sustainable Dining Operations: Servicewear

Restaurants, caterers, and corporate cafeterias purchase tons of disposable packaging to serve their customers. Their clients are increasingly eating on the run, causing the market for single-use containers, wrappers, cups, and utensils to reach $17 billion by the end of the decade.

That’s an awfully high price to pay for goods destined for the landfill in a matter of minutes. In 1991, Environmental Defense Fund and McDonald’s announced a landmark partnership to adopt a new waste management policy at the fast-food giant. The changes included phasing out the use of polystyrene “Styrofoam” clamshell sandwich containers, reducing the size of packaging, converting to unbleached paper products, and increasing recycled content.

Results from EDF’s partnership with McDonalds and others can help your facility make the right packaging decisions:

  1. Washable, reusable plates, cups, and silverware are generally the best option. For customers that dine inside your restaurant or cafeteria, reusable serviceware has the least environmental impact and can help cut packaging costs and waste pick-up fees. Through its partnership with Starbucks, EDF found that using reusable cups instead of single use paper or plastic cups achieves positive environmental benefits after 70 uses for ceramic cups and 36 uses for glass cups.  Given that a reusable cup may be used, on average, 1,000 times of more, the environmental benefits of reusable dishware can be tremendous.
  2. For food served “to-go,” to be eaten at home, in the office, or on the run, prioritize your container selection on the following factors:
    • Reduce size and weight of containers. Some disposable items cannot be replaced, but dining managers can often cut corners on packaging. By switching materials (e.g. “Styrofoam” to paper) and choosing containers that are appropriately sized to the product, you can achieve significant waste reductions. McDonald’s reduced its sandwich packaging volume by over 70 percent when it switched from polystyrene “clam shells” to paper sandwich wrappers. Eliminating disposable or reusable trays can also result in savings on packaging or dishwashing costs.
    • Buy packaging with high levels of post-consumer recycled material. Post-consumer recycled materials are those that served their original purpose and get incorporated into a new product or package. Starbucks recently introduced a 10% postconsumer recycled content disposable cup. Paper napkins at McDonalds contain at least 30% post-consumer recycled content. Also, because chlorine bleaching used in the manufacture of white paper is a significant source of water pollution from paper mills, switch to brown, unbleached paper products.
    • Recycle. After all attempts have been made to reduce container size/weight and achieve high levels of recycled content, select containers that can be recycled in your locality and provide clearly marked bins in your facility. Contract with your local waste collector to ensure that they are collected and recycled appropriately. Some collectors charge a nominal fee for recycling collection, but this can be offset by the reduced fee you’ll pay to dispose of non-recyclable waste. Don’t forget to also recycle corrugated shipping boxes, which can account for a significant percentage of a typical restaurant’s waste by weight.
    • Biodegradable packaging has little environmental benefit without composting. If recycling options are limited in your community and you choose biodegradable packaging, ensure it is composted. If you choose to use biodegradable packaging, including corn or bio-based plastics, it’s critical that you properly separate this material in your dining facility and have it collected by a credible commercial composter. Otherwise, customers and employees will be throwing away their “to-go” containers in conventional trash bins destined for landfill, and little environmental benefit is achieved.